This was best illustrated in August, when, as Girardi pulled Burnett from another bad game, Burnett yelled, “That’s fucking horseshit” after being pulled. The YES Network broadcasters, sick of Burnett and desperate for something to talk about, painted this as a Burnett-Girardi blowup. “Looks like he had some words right there for Joe Girardi,” said John Flaherty. The fuse was lit: This was the kind of dramatic narrative we have all become accustomed to, the conflict story this city has all but demanded. Girardi was having nothing of it. Asked after the game about the “confrontation,” he was as animated as he has ever been, insisting Burnett’s comment wasn’t directed at him (some thought it was aimed at the umpire), and snapping, “You can write what you want … People are always looking for A.J.” Burnett showed his appreciation afterward: “That guy’s taken my back, every day I’ve been here.” Burnett might not be pitching any better, but the Burnett-having-an-attitude-problem story disappeared immediately. Girardi laid down the law: He had his back, every day.
Girardi has his strategic shortcomings—he’s frustratingly rigid with bull-pen use and definitely has his LaRussian overmanaging tendencies (remember the obsessive binder checks during last year’s playoffs?)—but as the man steering the massive multibillion-dollar ocean liner that is the Yankees, he has proved perhaps a steadier hand than even, yes, Joe Torre. The Yankees legend famously loved to start controversies to “send messages” to his players, most notoriously batting A-Rod eighth in Game Four of the 2006 American League Division Series against the Tigers. That’s a move you’d never see Girardi make. I know there’s a certain seventies nostalgia among some Yankees fans, some Billy Martin ideal, some outdated notion that baseball players will somehow play harder if they have a manager who throws coolers around. This was probably never true, but it’s definitely not true now: Baseball players are millionaire professionals who can take care of themselves, thank you; they are employees who need an office manager to keep up a positive work environment. That’s Girardi’s specialty. Without the off-field headaches, the Yankees have nothing else to do but win games.
Of course, we’re a week away from the games that actually matter, when everyone’s watching, and that’s when Girardi’s overmanaging tendencies tend to be exposed; the Yankees manager seems to do his best work when fewer eyes are on him.
So where do the Yankees stand in the playoffs this year? The rotation issue will be exacerbated in the postseason, with CC Sabathia as the only pitcher the Yanks can count on. But this is more of a problem in a potential World Series against the stacked rotation of the Phillies than in the American League; pitching depth hasn’t been the inherent strength of the Red Sox, Rangers, or Tigers either. (Oh, and if I’m the Yankees, I’d probably rather play the Rangers than the suddenly red-hot Tigers and Justin Verlander in the ALDS.) Besides, Yankees fans will probably just be happy not to see Burnett. (And, God willing, they won’t.)
As Brad Pitt, general manager of the Oakland A’s, famously said, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Baseball’s postseason distills 162 games into five- and seven-game random chunks, and all it takes is three off nights to destroy all the good a long season has built up. But there’s not much Girardi or Yankees fans can do about that except hope for good fortune. More accurate: All they can hope for is an easy, smooth ride to the postseason, to have the ticket punched as effortlessly as possible, and then see what happens. The Yankees will be playing in October, just like everyone assumed they would even way back in April. That’s the hard part. Everything else is up to the baseball gods. Man can only control so much, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Joe Girardi and the Yankees this season, it’s that whatever they can possibly control, they will. This is as pain-free as being a baseball fan gets, folks. Appreciate it.